The Psychology of Speeding: Why Do We Do It?

The Psychology of Speeding: Why Do We Do It?

Living life in the fast lane has become the norm in our day-to-day routines, whether it’s eating, shopping, work or socialising: time is precious and we don’t want to waste a minute of it.

Speed deterrents are on the up, yet speeding offences are too. In the UK last year, police reported 2.3 million speeding breaches, while the Department for Transport revealed 217 fatalities were a result of drivers exceeding speed limits1. Staggeringly, the number of motorists caught speeding has risen by 44% over the last five years2.

Deterrents and limits don’t seem to be working, but why?

We’re going to dive into the minds of UK motorists. We want to find out why many choose to rush about at inappropriate speeds, or do so without realising, putting themselves and other road users in danger.

Why do motorists break the speed limits?

Running late for work, distracted by music, or even peer pressure from other stressed and aggressive drivers; these are all reasons why motorists may exceed their speed. But what’s the phycology behind this?

With almost 38 million vehicles3 currently in the UK, overcrowded roads can be quite overwhelming - having an adverse effect on decision making behind the wheel.

Risk Compensation

Our 2016 Safe Driving Survey revealed that eight in 10 motorist believe they’re safe drivers4, yet Thames Valley Police cited “95% of all road crashes are due to human error.” Could motorists be taking more risks on the road, because they think they’re safer than what they believe to be?

We spoke to Dr Gerald Wilde of Queens University, Ontario on his paper ‘Target Risk’, discussing his theory named ‘risk homeostasis’. The theory suggests that in any given situation people have a level of risk that they’re comfortable with - called target level of risk.

For motorists, if they’re confronted with a situation where their target level of risk is exceeded, they’ll act cautiously until they’re back in their comfort zone, such as parallel parking into a tight spot.

The flip side is some motorists may feel a situation is below their risk threshold, therefore acting in a riskier way before reaching their target level if risk. This could be someone overtaking you on a single-lane road into oncoming traffic, or driving at 50mph along a school road.

“People arrive at that target level of risk not on the basis of explicit numerical calculation, but on the basis of general knowledge, intuition and affect,” Dr Wilde explained. This means motorists base their behaviour on previous experience of a particular situation on the roads, as well as attitudes towards their own driving and decision-making skills.

Whenever the perceived risk is lower than accepted, people will respond by more daring action, and whenever it is higher than desired, people will choose to act more cautiously.

Dr Gerald Wilde, Queens University Ontario

Behavioural Adaptation – Have We Grown Too Dependent?

These days our vehicles come more equipped with technological advancements in safety features, such as Antilock Brakes, Telematics or even the ability to dial 999 for you after a vehicle collision. With all these safety features in our vehicles - have we grown too reliant on them?

The term ‘behavioural adaptation5’ means people rely on technological systems to tell them what to do. In the context of driving, this could be an action such as: following your sat-nav directions or your dashboard telling you to change gear. Although these systems are designed with road safety in mind, we can end up following them blindly - like when our sat-nav take us on the extra-long scenic route by mistake. This can limit our concentration on the road as we’re being told what to do – which could potentially lead to an accident. In short; we become lazy.

The Ripple Effect of Driver Behaviour

Imagine the situation – you’re waiting at a traffic light, and after a nanosecond of the light turning green the car behind beeps it’s horn, prompting you to hurry up. This is hugely annoying, and understandably going to turn your mood sour and affect your behaviour.

Dr Chris Tennant from the London School of Economics and Political Science conducted a survey exploring: how our interactions with one another may impact each other’s driving behaviour on the road.

Interviewing 8,971 drivers, their responses to different driving situations were analysed. They characterised different ‘scripts’: “normative guides to our own behaviours and expectations of the ways that others will behave”. When motorists ‘break the script’, this may result in other drivers getting frustrated.

These interactions were categorised into ‘combative’ or ‘considerate’ driving. While most drivers are considerate on the roads, different contexts can influence even the least problematic motorists into being provoked to drive more dangerously. Almost nine in 10 (88%) respondents agreed that there’s ‘unwritten rules’ of the road, or road etiquette motorists follow, and that conflict on the road can be caused by drivers not following this.

The short of it is, as explained by Dr Tennant: “Our own behaviour can create a ripple effect of similar behaviour by other drivers. As a result, the very behaviours which we find provocative in others are the same behaviours we sometimes engage in as a consequence.”

In the context of speeding motorists: the driver behind is pressuring you to move quicker by either tailgating or flashing you. Although you’re driving the limit, it’s how you respond - whether you’re calm or aggressive - that will determine the rest of the journey for not only you, but others around as well. Dr Tennant concluded by stating that we should be trying to ‘improve the quality of everyday driving’:

Drivers themselves create the very environment they often find stressful and to which they can respond combatively: more considerate driving would generate more considerate driving.

Dr Chris Tennant, London School of Economics and Political Science

How can motorists avoid speeding in future?

According to THINK! the risk of death is approximately four times higher when a someone is hit by a car at 40mph than at 30mph6, so keeping control of your speed would make a big difference to someone’s life if there were an accident. So consider these:

  • Know your speed. Just like checking mirrors before manoeuvring, keep an eye on the speedometer when speed limits change from road to road, so remember: speed limits are limits, not targets. Also, it’s important to adjust your speed to the context of that moment in time, such as if the road is icy – the limit in place may be too fast for this road condition.
  • Recognise what makes you speed. If the driver up front decides to go beyond the speed limit in place, that doesn’t mean you keep up with them. Tailgaters or overtaking motorists may cause us to press down on the accelerator a little harder than needed, so don’t feel pressured by other motorists to speed, as this aggravation could impact the outcome of your journey later on. Also, allow yourself extra time to travel from A to B, so you’re not feeling pressured to rush yourself.
  • Concentrate on the road ahead. If your sat-nav told you to drive over a cliff, would you? Remember, vehicle distractions like music, gadgets, people and pets could cause you to loose concentration and speed excessively - without even realising until the last minute.
  • Be a considerate driver. As previously discussed, our driving behaviour can have a profound impact on others using the road and vice versa. Dr Tennant noted from his research that “87% agreed that when one driver had helped them, they might be more likely to help another later on their journey.” The conclusion being: “More considerate driving would generate more considerate driving.”

In simple, we as motorists, regardless of driving ability, need to recognise that excessive speeding is dangerous and the consequences following an accident are serious. We must take responsibility for our own decision making and attitudes behind the wheel, to help create a positive driving environment on UK roads.

We’ve got a selection of guides on road safety – to help make your journeys a pleasant experience. Make the pledge with us and Brake during Road Safety Week - as Speed Down Saves Lives.

Additional Sources

[4]Aviva’s Safe Driving Survey: An exclusive survey of 1,094 British drivers conducted online by YouGov for Aviva in conjunction with the Telegraph - 7-9 December 2015

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